14 April 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Glenn Gould – the incomparable

“Gould, who categorically rejected the hysterical media hype of live performances, is more famous than any of the music matadors, except maybe Karajan and Maria Callas.”
Jean-Yves Clément

There have never been reproducing musicians whose art of interpretation has been so intimately connected with technical novelties and media innovation as Karajan and Glenn Gould.

Both were searching for new opportunities in recording and filming musical processes and both related their theories on this point to the oldest form of music making, the live event – with very different results. Gould stopped playing piano in public at the age of 31, Karajan conducted more than 3300 concerts and opera performances until shortly before his death.

Gould and Karajan seemed to be an unlikely couple for the 1950s public. Gould was seen as an opponent of Karajan’s sound and repertoire but both men admired each other greatly. They met for the first time for three concerts with Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto in 1957 during Gould’s triumphant Europe tour. This concert was recorded and published many years later as the only testimonial of their collaboration.

“Listening to him, I had a feeling of listening to myself. His way of music-making was so similar to mine.”
Karajan about Gould after his death in 1982

In the second part of the concert, Karajan conducted Sibelius’ 5th symphony for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic. Gould witnessed the performance and was deeply impressed. Many years later in 1974, he wrote in a fictional interview with himself:

“As you know, Karajan tends – in late romantic repertoire particularly – to conduct with eyes closed and to endow his stick wielding with enormously persuasive choreographic contours, and the effect, quite frankly, contributed to one of the truly indelible musical-dramatic experiences of my life. (…) I have absolutely no idea as to the ‘athetic’ merits of Karajan’s Sibelius Fifth when I encountered it on that memorable occasion. In fact the beauty of the occasion was that, although I was aware of being witness to an intensely moving experience, I had no idea as to whether it was or was not a ‘good’ performance. My aesthetic judgements were simply placed in cold storage – which is where I should like them to remain, at least when assessing the works of others.”

In 1967, Gould utilized Karajan’s recording of that symphony (Sibelius Fifth) in the epilogue of his radio documentary “The Idea of North”.

Next time they met was in September 1958 (again in Berlin) for two concerts with Bach’s D minor concerto. Both artists had the reputation of being perfectionists but misunderstandings could still happen! Gould thought Karajan’s upbeat was a cue and started alone, the orchestra came in a bar later. Within a second, they matched up but the chaotic start was very obvious… In Summer 1959, Karajan and Gould performed for the last time together in Lucerne, actually it was Gould’s last ever concert in Europe. It was the D minor Bach concerto once more and Gould recalled almost 20 years later:

“I had no difficulty at all (…) persuading Herbert von Karajan to conduct a performance of Bach’s D-minor concerto from the lip of the stage so that the piano could be surrounded by, and integrated with, the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra.”

Glenn Gould was a classical pianist and an icon of 20th century culture. From the very beginning of his career, he was categorised (sometimes by himself) as a cold-hearted mechanic, a puritan, an anti-romantic, a fanatic. In fact, he was the opposite of a narrow-minded philistine but a self-educated universal mind with (like Karajan) a great knowledge of technical matters and the desire (like Karajan) to work and to be seen simply as – a musician. He also was a gifted composer, an innovative broadcast producer and he was one of the very few interpreters who not only talked about his interpretations in interviews but wrote theoretical essays about his own recordings and those of other composers, singers, instrumentalists and conductors. There’s arguably no other musician who analysed Karajan’s music-making and technical progress as constantly and with as much commitment as he did. In 1976, he wrote:

“Strauss’s Metamorphosen, for example, is a work I have loved, on paper, as a concept, for nearly thirty years but which I had long since written off as a vehicle for twenty-three wayward strings in search of a six-four chord. All that changed a couple of years ago when I first heard Karajan’s magisterial recording. For weeks, night after night, on occasion two or three times per – I’m not exaggerating – I played that disc, passed through the eyes-uplifted-in-wonder stage, went well beyond the catch-in-throat-and-tingle-on-the-spinal-cord phase, and, at last, stood on the threshold of…laughter.”

About Karajan’s first “Sacre du printemps” recording in 1964 – Gould even defended Karajan against criticism by Stravinsky himself (“surely the most imaginative and, in a purely compartmentalized sense, ‘inspired’ realization of Le Sacre”)! He also praised Karajan’s recordings of a composer Gould was praised very often for and Karajan wasn’t – Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos”.

“Every other attempt at orchestral shooting pales by comparison with the Karajan approach.”
Gould in 1969

After their last concert, the two men kept in touch and it is no wonder that the next time they met in New York in 1967, the subject was music films. Karajan asked Gould for a private viewing of Gould’s work in this genre. Vice versa Gould was a great admirer of the Karajan concert films, especially the 1967 “Pastorale” and the Dvořák “New World” with Clouzot (“For anyone steeped in concert hall traditions, this film will be an infuriating experience – but I love it!”).

The last and most unconventional idea of a collaboration concerned a “transatlantic” recording project in 1976, which Gould elaborated quite precisely even though he admitted it could sound awful. Gould would have recorded the solo parts of Bach’s D minor concerto and Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto in Canada, sent it to Europe and – listening to these – Karajan recorded the orchestra part. Then both recordings would have been amalgamated. As we know, the project didn’t happen.


Listen to Karajan and Gould performing Beethoven and Sibelius (plus a twelfe-minute feature about the two artists) here.

Jean-Yves Clément: “Glenn Gould ou le Piano de l’esprit” Actes Sud, Arles, 2016

“The Glenn Gould Reader” Edited by Tim Page. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1984

Michael Stegemann: “Glenn Gould. Leben und Werk” Piper Verlag GmbH, München, 1992

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